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January 10, 2013


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"But inasmuch as these words offer us a window into not just Agee's head in 1948, but a sentiment that it was not entirely disagreeable to articulate in The Nation in 1948, so too do Tarantino's words offer a window into what "we" think, or may think, Griffith's attitude and intentions were. We see them only as hateful. We are literally incapable of extending the sympathy to observe that Griffith saw/understood blacks "as a good Southerner would."

As an aficionado of US politics, Richard Russell is always a fascinating figure. There's a reason he's on a Senate office building, and there is much to admire in his national security career. But as Caro does a nice job of showing, he's kinda like a high Nazi figure, no matter how much of a "a good German gentleman of his times he was."

"It's all terribly appalling, and yet you'd have to be an entire cinematic illiterate not to see and, yes, maybe feel the skill with which Griffith pulls off his to-the-rescue "real climax" with barely minutes to spare in the film's running time."

It's a REALLY important technical breakthrough and 'first' in film history. (I always prefer Way Down East as a demo of DW's skillz cuz you don't have to deal with the 'problematic' aspects.) But you can hold the politics and filmmaking in your mind at the exact same time when you watch TBOFAN. There's a saying about how that kind of thing is proof of well-working mind for very good reason...

David Ehrenstein

The Ku Klux Klan was headed for the dustbin when "The Birth of A Nation" came along. It spurred memebership and thereby encouraged lynchings.

You can call it a movie all you like. I call it a murder weapon.

As for th "racing to the resue" climax, it' s pretty cute but have you seen "Argo."?

As for what his apologists refer to as "Griffith's real feelings" they claim "Intolerance" was his mea culpa for the frayed nerves and raised hackles TBOAN inspired. The problem i it doesn't deal with racial intolerance AT ALL.

Oh and one last thing, it went into production as "The Clansman" it was only after he showed it to a friend that he changed the title to "The Birth of A Nation" at the friend's suggestion.


"You can call it a movie all you like. I call it a murder weapon."

Movies don't kill people. Only guns and Zero Dark Thirty kill people.


Let me express my deepest gratitude, Glenn, for this. I'm usually not given to gushing, but this is simply stunning as a piece of writing.
I would like to add just a few observations, as extra fodder for the intriguing discussion that inevitably will follow in the next few hours/days:
- I teach film studies classes, and it is nearly impossible to get students to watch BOAN; after all, it's silent, in black & white and 3 hours long. But just because society's definition of what is entertaining has changed and its attention span has decreased, does not make the movie less relevant for anyone interested in the history of film or race relations. We need to go on discussing it and its impact, as it will always be an important historical artefact with an enormous power to unsettle. (In my observation, the one group of students that usually stick with the film until the end are of an ethnic background - African, African American or Black British; they understandably react very emotionally to what they have seen with anything from incredulity to outrage.) On the other hand, the general public disinterest in any film that is nearly a hundred years old seems to suggest that at least the KKK which in the past has admitted to owning a copy of BOAN and "occasionally using it for recruiting purposes" is less likely to do so now.
- the horribly ambivalent feelings a modern viewer has when watching BOAN become even more complicated when one considers that without BOAN, there would be no "Intolerance". Can one cherish that great masterpiece without remembering why it came into existence, as an attempt to apologize for any harm BOAN might have done and to prove that Griffiths was not intolerant? (That Griffiths was shocked by the accusations of racism only shows how much he was caught up in his own thinking as a "good Southerner".)
- James Agee in 1948 not realizing how offensive BOAN is, could be seen as another example of an artist clearly being a product of his/her time; on the other hand, Agee is also known to have downplayed the racism he encountered when living with the poor farmers that were his subjects for "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", partly because he got very close to them and their plight. Maybe this loss of critical perspective is unavoidable when one is so close to one's subject, as Griffiths was to the endeavour of reconciliating North and South, one of the major reasons for him to make BOAN to begin with
- the whole topic of Griffiths using white actors in blackface deserves its own in-depth (psycho)analysis; all I want to do here is to point out that because of this bizarre casting strategy one single shot/intertitle unsettles the entire film: it's the scene with "White Spies disguised"; the film assures us that they pass as regular African-Americans simply because they are in blackface. Here the whole movie becomes absurd as it shows us white "heroes" pretending to be black spying on white actors pretending to be black "villains".


"Can one cherish that great masterpiece without remembering why it came into existence"

Like I say, gotta hold the two ideas in the head at the same time.

Revolutionarily innovative filmmaking along with perhaps the most repellent political stance of a major US motion picture in history. The Offspring's desire aside, you can't keep 'em separated.

As Einstein's equation proves, it's The Triumph of the Will squared. Times the speed of lightning.


Glenn, this is a good piece about a thorny question and film, but I'd like to raise two points.

Firstly, one phrase that always gives me the heebie-jeebies is "that's how they felt at the time", and that's particularly true when it comes to race relations. True, race relations at the time were, on an institutional level, much worse than they are today, but it makes it seem like there were no black public figures making a difference at the time, in film or elsewhere, and so much as I admire Agee as a writer and critic, I call bullshit on that entire defense he wrote.

Secondly, if BIRTH OF A NATION is problematic today in addition to how it is as a film (along with, of course, its technical brilliance), it's because the majority of works dealing with the Civil War, or the tensions that arose from it, portray the South as the good guys and the North as the bad guys (there are plenty of people who take issue with GONE WITH THE WIND's racism, for example, if not the Klan specifically). As you sort of imply, one of the nice things about LINCOLN is the corrective it applies to Thaddeus Stevens; you might think his portrayal in BOAN to be hysterical and one-note, and justifiably so, but what of the book "Profiles in Courage", which John F. Kennedy signed his name to, and yet portrays Andrew Johnson as someone of courage but Stevens in just as evil terms as (presumably) Thomas Dixon and Griffith did?

Mr. Peel

Very random thought: considering how Tarantino is friends with Peter Bogdanovich who remains the primary champion of Ford and also deified the opening of BIRTH in his film NICKELODEON it would be interesting to know what sort of discussions the two men have had about all this.

David Ehrenstein

Do try, ofyou can, to dig up a copy of "Film Culture" #36, Spring-Summer 1965 which consists entirely of Seymour Stern on "The Birth of A Nation."


Someone tell Tarantino that Woodville Latham (he of the revolutionary Loop) was an actual, serving Confederate officer. Then he might start making his movies shorter in protest, and we all benefit.

J. Priest

FWIW, while there's no denying the technical skill displayed in the crafting of the film (the cross-cutting, the recreation of the Civil War scenes, etc.), the movie's reputation for its innovations in filmmaking may be inflated. The late James Card (former curator of the George Eastman House who specialized in silent film history) wrote a book called 'Seductive Cinema' in which he argues that "The Birth of a Nation" was more like a Rosetta stone in film language - it coalesced many filmmaking techniques previously pioneered by a wide range of filmmakers rather than just Griffith himself (much less, within "The Birth of a Nation" itself).

Jason Michelitch

J. Priest,

"Innovations in filmmaking" is the vague, shorthand way of describing the film, but its great achievement was always coalescing a narrative grammar for cinema. I think you're really just more accurately describing what it has always been less accurately celebrated for.


Don't want to impede this conversation, and great piece, Glenn, but as to the whole "good southerner" thing, can't we just let Faulkner deal with that shit? As in, maybe we should have a couple of characters, maybe one good guy and one bad guy, and let them hash this out, instead of just winding up a sermon?

Just sayin'.


I think QT protests wayyyy too much with his demonizing of Griffith and Ford for their racism. If the one fleeting shot in DJANGO is his "fuck you" to Griffith, then who is he saying "fuck you" to with the (frat boy favorite) Sicilian monologue in TRUE ROMANCE? We're clearly supposed to root for Dennis Hopper's supposed jab at Walken's miscegenated ancestry. Is this his "fuck you" to Frank Capra?

David Ehrenstein

As I was just saying --


David Ehrenstein

And now a few choice words from Hollywood's Biggest Racist Asshole


That Fuzzy Bastard

Oh no, now Ehrenstein is going to stupid up this thread too!


Oof. QT does a fair amount of stupiding in that interview...

David Ehrenstein

Selznick is quite clever in GWTW. A vigilante group that crops up in the story clearly is a stand-in for the Klan. But they don't wear hoods and blacks are not their target.


compartmentalization - holding two opposing things to be simultaneously true - gets a bad rap a lot of the time, but IMO there are just some cases when nothing else will do and (IMO) this is one of those cases.

IMO BOAN is both great and horrible. It advocates many horrible things and there is no doubt in my mind many people suffered terribly because of the racist ideology it promoted.

And yet...

If nothing else it is profoundly important in film history for being a feature film that laid the groundwork for the 'formula' for all future feature films. Griffith was a great visionary and synthesizer, he not only came up with a more fluid form of visual storytelling in his short films, he then was able to make ANOTHER leap and design a narrative that would keep people in their seats for 3 hours (previously it was thought that people's 'natural' attention span was much shorter). There were other filmmakers doing long-form films, but none which came up with a narrative 'design' that sticks even to the present day.

Until somebody comes up with a new narrative form that supersedes the form that is predominant now (maybe some day "Satantango" will become the predominant narrative template), BOAN is essentially important just on that score alone and its influence simply cannot be wished away, even if for the best possible reasons.

Getting back to compartmentalization: a part of me cannot help but cut Griffith some slack. While I hold he was a certain kind of artistic genius, I think in many ways he was a clueless, childish idiot and just not very intelligent or self-aware. I do not doubt he was shocked when BOAN came out and he was accused of racism - I do believe he was blinded by the sentimental values of his childhood and was not really capable of breaking outside the box. Indeed, his attempt to silence charges of racism with "Broken Blossoms" is sadly laughable, as all it does is (I think unwittingly) play into ANOTHER set of negative stereotypes about Asian men.

I guess there is a certain kind of nasty comfort one can take in knowing how - like George in "The Magnificent Ambersons" - Griffith eventually got his 'comeuppance' in real life. Locked in his own particular victorian mindset, he was completely unable to adapt to the changing times of the post-WWI era and in time was completely shunted aside by Hollywood, unable to get money to make films. If memory served he died broke and alcoholic.

To an extent, I can cut Agee some slack too for his post-mortem. There are some genuinely sad things about what befell Griffith and Agee was not just trying to rehabilitate Griffith, he also had his campaign to cut through the shockingly sudden amnesia Americans had developed about silent films in general.


"Selznick is quite clever in GWTW. A vigilante group that crops up in the story clearly is a stand-in for the Klan. But they don't wear hoods and blacks are not their target."

The "political meeting" attended by the white men who bust up the shantytown outside Atlanta during which action Frank Kennedy is killed and Ashley Wilkes wounded isn't a stand-in for a Klan meeting but a Klan meeting (and there's a bit of dialogue regarding clothes to be burnt). Selznick balked at the glorification of the KKK in the novel -- reportedly forced on Mitchell by her publisher, but I'm unsure of that -- and thus doesn't mention them outright, but the unnamed group of men who've recently banded together "for our protection" that Melanie Wilkes describes to the confused Scarlett is plainly the Klan.

The attack on Scarlett outside of town, which provokes the vigilante action, is made by two men, one black and one white, and the shantytown is occupied by both blacks and whites. The attack is made by the Klan, even though they aren't named or shown in their getups, and black people are among the victims of the raid. Unless you're thinking of another incident in the picture that I'm not remembering.....


It's also worth noting that Big Sam saves Scarlett in the incident that leads to the raid (at least on he film)

Dan Coyle

I'm now convinced that Armond White and David Ehrenstein are actually the same man, like Roger has multiple identities on American Dad.

Jeff McMahon

Can we vote Ehrenstein off the fucking island?


"Why is David Ehrenstein doing this? They said when David Ehrenstein got here the whole thing started. Who is David Ehrenstein? WHAT is David Ehrenstein? Where did David Ehrenstein come from? I think you're the cause of all this! I think you're not-entirely-pure evil! Not-entirely-pure EVIL!!"


David E says:

Surely the facts aren't in dispute...

(wait a minute, that's not right...)

Oh Prunella!

(no, hang on...)

Clutch those pearls!

(that's not it either. Oh wait, i've got it...)


That Fuzzy Bastard

Dan: You're close. But that would be too easy. The truth is that David Ehrenstein and Lex are the same person, a plump systems consultant with a ginger beard and a collection of Warhammer figurines, living in Nebraska with his disabled mother.


"The truth is that David Ehrenstein and Lex are the same person, a plump systems consultant with a ginger beard and a collection of Warhammer figurines, living in Nebraska with his disabled mother."

Damn. I wanted to be the new Lex, only smart and a value-add, as opposed to dumb and a value-subtract. But I guess I don't really fit the profile.


I find the best way to fight off Ehrenstein is to put him down with subtle wit. Unlike Lex, it is possible to shame him into backing off for a few hours...

Tom Russell

I actually don't see the problem with Tarantino refusing to answer the interviewer's question. He doesn't want to talk about it, then he doesn't want to talk about it. Instead of keeping on about it and about why he was asking it, the interviewer should have just moved on when it became apparent that it wasn't up for discussion.

David Ehrenstein



So David Ehrenstein calls Tarantino a "racist asshole." It takes one to know one.

They're both indulging in hysterical, over-the-top rhetoric, for the purpose of calling attention to themselves.

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